There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Notes on John Clute's anatomy of the horror novel

Notes from "The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror," by John Clute (in his 2014 collection Stay)


Page 213. 

one of several genres or modes of the fantastic in literature.

theory of AFFECT HORROR - crudely, that texts may be defined as Horror if they generate certain emotions 

special nature of Fantastic Horror, which is described in this lexicon as a pattern of story moves deeply and at times grotesquely responsive - like all genres of the Fantastic - to the nature of the world since 1750: attendance to the world precedes affect.

Fantastic Horror is born at a point when it has begun to be possible to glimpse the planet itself as a drama

Enlightened Europeans were beginning to know it all, were beginning to think that glimpsing the world was tantamount to owning it.

Horror is (in part) a subversive response to the falseness of that Enlightenment ambition to totalize knowledge and the world into an imperial harmony that, soon enough, would become treasonous to dispute (viz Stalin).

Horror - and the Fantastic as a whole - are conceived in contradiction to the imperialisms of the West. The Fantastic is Enlightenment's dark, mocking Twin: Humbert Humbert's Quilty. Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.

Horror, like any genre, has many mansions.

Horror is the extremist

Science Fiction, which might be called the Fantastic of the Case, declares that certain fixes answer the world, as though the world were composed of query

Fantasy (see FREE FANTASTIC ) repudiates the Wrongness of the world, and makes its escape from prison into a truer world (its rage may sublimate heavenwards, or not)

Horror (see BOUND FANTASTIC ) comprises a process of uncovering the true nature of the prison, which is seen to be inescapable, for the prison of the world is where the buck stops, huis clos . Horror exercises its rage ripping open the one-way gates to truth; after which is silence, a deep transparency of utter rage.

Example:  Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1899 Blackwood's Magazine ) incorporates maybe the definitive - and certainly the best known - utterance of the nature of Horror in all literature, an ultimate gape of rage, a final saying of the world at the close. As the supernaturally meme-absorbent Stanley Kurtz approaches death, he gazes upon something not explicable as a vision of African landscape illegible to aliens, or of atrocities he may have committed within it: but there is no God to damn him. What he gazes upon is the heart of darkness - the naked, impersonal malice of the world, the V ASTATION consequent upon true seeing - stripped of all the impedimenta of false "civilized" darkness we have seen Marlow hoick up the Congo. By the time Kurtz cries out at last, "The horror, the horror!", he has transited all that fiddle of story, and can only utter the final grammar of reality entire

Page 214

much Affect Horror could be described as being stuck in the Thickening phase of the model

a bald paraphrase of Peter Pan; Or, the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (1928) might (for instance) unpack this great play as a Horror narrative trapped in unending A FTERMATH , though no one could actually experience the play without understanding it as - or also as - a Fantasy of Return.

Page 215

models for Horror and Fantasy presented here are, after all, attempts to articulate a profound and specific fastening of Story to world. After all the ludic displays attendant upon the uttering of grammars, that much is binding.

it is argued here that over the past 250 years there has evolved an understory or grammar that governs the literal telling of stories of Horror, and that the cast of Horror - the bloodsuckers, the eaters, the undead, the DOUBLES and/or twins surfacing out of the oppressed past into the mirror, the creatures of the Id, the ATTEMPTED R ESCUES , the fanatics, the elder races - that all these creatures who might be called the utterands of Horror are participants in a great parade, that they march truthwards to the tune of the B OUND F ANTASTIC , the tune of history turning out of Eden. The still centre of Horror may be the supernal intransitive howl of Kurtz, but the passage to that ultimate point - as in some great Theatre of Memory - is lined with utterands of the storyable, who remind us through their grimaces and caperings of the world that burned them into these shapes. They are expressions of the world. When we encounter Horror's utterands in our waking dreams, we are communing with stigmata of the Earth, anguishes of the darkening of the garden.

Utterand: John Clute: "The hundreds of figures who jam into Against the Day are not in fact characters at all, because Pynchon has evacuated his book of that degree of hope. They are utterands: people-shaped utterances who illuminate the stories of the old world that their Author has placed before us in funeral array; they are codes to spell his book with."

[Anatomy of the horror novel]



Sighting is a glimpse of terror to come; it is Uncanny to experience (see below), and it tells us that something worse than what we just sighted is in the offing

more than an initial experience of horror.... whose effects may be exhausted in the seeing

Sighting predicts ; it is an aliquot sample of what is to come; an Infection of the next. It is the first "sentence" in an argument whose outcome will be an unpeeling of the true world

analogous to the sense of Wrongness

the moment when the protagonist (or the narrative voice of the story) begins to recognize a THICKENING (which is the second stage) in the texture of the world

first sign that we are going to be unmapped or unhouseled from the normal world

Sighting is the first sign that we are going to be unmapped or unhouseled from the normal world - "normal world" being a term simply designating a world that we are accustomed to, a world which we may indeed discover to have been unreal.


It is still surely the case that something like the return of the repressed - the re-emergence into sight of that which "ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light", as Sigmund Freud describes the uncanny in his famous essay "Das Unheimlich" (1919 Imago 5) - does characterize Sighting.

for Freud the Uncanny is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

Uncanny. certainly in terms of the arguments being sketched here, is a pun of the world.

The Uncanny - which is to say Sighting - is a trompe l'oeil which the world generates .

both the same and not the same

It is the wit of Terror, and makes the heart of the protagonist (and of the identifying reader) thump in the breast, though not for joy of the joke; and it is all more terrible in that the heart now beats to the rhythm of the world to come.

the protagonist (and the reader) may now attempt to escape their Sighting, but to run away in Horror is to be FOLLOWED; to run away is to make an A PPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA.

Once a Sighting has been made, there is no Return.

no such thing as a genuine quest in Horror, for the unknown has already taken them

they are already hooked.

It is still surely the case that something like the return of the repressed - the re-emergence into sight of that which "ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light", as Sigmund Freud describes the uncanny in his famous essay "Das Unheimlich" (1919 Imago 5) - does characterize Sighting.

simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

*   *   *



the future adumbrated in the terrorizing flash of Sighting begins to come true.

the process of Thickening normally occupies most of any text being considered. Thickening, taken alone, can of course be thought of as simply another way of pointing to the kind of plot-complicating common to much fiction; but even here, if Thickening is focused on deeply, an effect similar to that of Horror - unresolved Horror - may be felt

cumulative movement towards a further stage: betrayals and mysterious absences (or presences) and keys that do not open and trains that do not come clot the mise en scene, force protagonists down paths they do not wish to tread; nothing adds up; confusion reigns; life is inherently impeded : there seems no exit from the suffocating tangle of plot; the atmosphere of things literally thickens; it is hard to breathe; in the end there has been a progressive unmapping of the paths within the world, which increasingly shuts in one's face, so that protagonists have no choice available to them except that of obedience to the pull of gravity, the H OOK that will expose them to the Revel: this all takes time to convey.

the rind of the world, whose haecceity or thingness is mockingly focused upon through the various narrative ingenuities of Thickening in the hands of a competent author, is a rind of lies: as is the assemblage of evasions, the scar tissue over the unendurable past, which comprises the Hooked self: the face worn outdoors by the careerists (that is, you and me) who profit from obeying the rules of daylight "reality": who breed and thrive, who consume upon the sinking deck. Look into the mirror, Dr Jekyll, and you will see rind.

entanglement binds writers and readers; within 21st century Horror texts, it also tends to bind protagonists recursively familiar with the prior stories that are telling them again: that entanglement being the accumulated mass of precedent and conversation contained in everything already written and read.

An essential part of the 21st century experience of Thickening - where most of the icons are resurrected and told again, where most of the assumptions Horror makes about the world are iterated and reiterated at length - is therefore an experience of déjà vu ; the past inhabits our present, doubles the stories being told. Recursiveness slows the course of story, embrambles the path with echoes. For better and for worse, it Thickens our passage.

if the contemporary Horror novel is genuinely transgressive, it is not so through any discovery of new fluxes of affect. It is transgressive because it continues to tell us that Baron Frankenstein is the true monster, that we who are the owners of the world are the devourers of the world.

The truth of things wells up …

*   *   *

REVEL (Autumn)


As a noun.... a formal event bound in time and place, an event in which the field of the world is reversed: good becomes evil; parody becomes jurisprudence; the jester is king; Hyde lives; autumn is the growing season.

As a verb, Revel refers to actions which create and animate such an event, actions of telling which catch revelation on the wing; it also points to the subversive nature of story itself: because, as it is being told , every story about the world threatens to transport us out of our previous understanding of the world.

Revel comes after the thickening rind of appearances is peeled away at last, when the truth of things glares through the peeled MASQUE or DANSE MACABRE ; and resolves into the exhausted latency of AFTERMATH .

Revel delivers the truth (see also SERPENT'S EGG ); it is most devastating when the truth it delivers is revealed to be some form of VASTATION 

some defining expression of the malice of the world.

Revel tends to announce the world to come (and the season it is analogous to is fall).

Revel is the action of the real world announcing itself.

marks the moment when a horror tale ceases to describe the welling up of the repressed and the subversive within the restraining walls of "civilization", and begins to tell it as it is.

the subversive power of Horror to open the eyes.

Masque and Carnival are best understood - in the frame of argument presented here - as manifestations of the Revel.

Out of an ocean of choices, four more exemplary titles can be mentioned:

Robert Aickman's "Ringing the Changes" (in The Third Ghost Book, anth 1955 , ed Cynthia Asquith) ends in a literal Dance of Death, but one in which the protagonist's wife joins, leaving him forever as she gallivants deadpan into the new desert world which he will never understand, being belated.

The long descent of the protagonist of Fred Chappell's Dagon (1968) into bondage culminates in an epiphanic (though almost immobile) Revel conducted in the presence of the God, which is an idiot and a SERPENT'S EGG , and which will rule the world.

The whole second half of Peter Straub's Floating Dragon (1982), as a whole an omnium gatherum of AFFECT HORROR effects, can be understood too as a superimposition of Revel upon Thickening, a Revel so boisterous and prolonged it almost seems to proclaim a welcome to the worst infections the world can offer.

Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong (1990) is structured entirely through a crescendo of Revels which, once again, strip the world of its masks.

Glen Hirshberg's "Mr Dark's Carnival" (in Shadows and Silence , anth 2000 , ed Barbara Roden and Christopher Roden) returns to an even blacker outcome, for the dance his protagonist enters is death for sure, and the world which echoes his terminal moves is made up of the betrayed bones beneath America. In this tale, and in so many others, the dance of Revel is taps for the future.

*   *   *



At the very heart of the moment of Aftermath lies an awareness that the story is done.

passage through these stages will have been taxing - the greater novels of Horror are almost certainly the most exhausting of all popular books to experience the passage out of Revel - out of the moment of transvaluation of all values into a fixated awareness that the world so exposed is in fact the real world - may be so swift, and the ending of the tale may come so soon, that the desiccating torpor of Aftermath may be no more than glimpsed, a surreal echo of the flash of Sighting which has earlier announced that the end is nigh.

The central sense conveyed by Aftermath, after all, is that there is nothing to be done, that there is no cure to hand, no more story to tell, no deus ex machina , no statement that It Was All a Dream

Aftermath is all problem, like muskeg: problem without solution, a geography without watershed.

the famous invocation of "silence, exile, and cunning" which concludes James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1916] is a mantra for surviving Aftermath

Horror is best understood in relation to the world. The choice implies a further claim: that Horror, which as a formal enterprise is a creation of the Western World, ends where the buck stops for Western humanity: in the Waste Land we have created. The true conspectus and habitation of Horror is the desolate world proleptically glimpsed by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1899 Blackwood's Magazine); it is the most famous use of the word Horror in all literature, and the truest to the case: "The horror, the horror!" exclaims Kurtz, on being vouchsafed one final dying gaze upon the world, which is also the world to come.

only in the spasm of Aftermath - which may seem an eternity - are the lineaments of the future likely to come clear.

the central extra-textual or para-textual function of Aftermath, beyond its central role in terminating the story at hand: to flash-freeze the future is the final gift of Horror.


8 March 2021

No comments:

Post a Comment